If you had asked me four years ago how successful social business concepts would be in German companies, I would have answered very cautiously.

The Germans are justifiably known for their prudence when it comes to introducing new technologies. We are one of the nations that have thought longest and hardest about data security and protection, and are right to have done so. However, German companies have pleasantly surprised me. For Germany actually appears to be one of the leading countries in the world when it comes to adapting social business concepts -- or at least, that is what my experiences with many of my clients suggest.

Staying Ahead with Social Business

Many companies have come to the conclusion that Germany, in particular, this land of engineers and inventors, must become a social business. German companies prosper to a large extent due to strong exports and their expertise in developing highly complex and advanced solutions.

These products need to be developed more quickly and to a higher standard than competing ones on the market to justify their cost. And, as German companies have learnt from bitter experience, cars, solar technology and machines can be copied quickly, so the only way to survive in the global marketplace is to stay one step ahead of the competition. It is no coincidence that Audi chose Vorsprung durch Technik -- “Progress through Technology” -- as its slogan and that the original German is used across the world.

This is precisely where the issue of social business comes into play. To stay ahead, companies have to strengthen their ability to innovate by encouraging the free exchange of ideas and open discussion. Technology is not the whole solution. Management needs to have a particular mindset, too.

Staying ahead today is very much a question of corporate and management culture. Employees should not be regarded merely as a cost factor, as is easily and frequently the case in high-labor-cost countries like Germany. Rather, they are above all agents of productivity, bringing in expertise and driving innovation.

Companies in Germany and around the world need to harness the potential of these knowledge workers, introduce them to new technologies and ways of working, and familiarize them with the risks and, more importantly, the opportunities these new developments present.

But large corporations are not the only ones who stand to benefit from social business concepts, as my experiences show. Medium-sized companies remain an indispensable force in driving innovation in Germany, and many of them are enthusiastically embracing social business, as well.

A while ago, I visited one such medium-sized business in Baden-Württemberg in southern Germany. The company manufactures the best and most innovative products in the area it specializes in, water technology, and it is able to charge higher prices for its products by keeping ahead of the competition in terms of technology.

The management was initially highly skeptical about all the “hoopla” surrounding social business. As one member of the management team put it: “We want our employees to work, not chat.” But they soon realized how important real-time communication, discussing and exchanging ideas via social software, was if they were to remain a worldwide market leader.

This German company is a prime example of a social business that relies on its ability to innovate, that needs the ideas and expertise of employees, that operates in various locations (often around the globe), and that has to be quicker and better than its rivals to survive amid global competition.

Germany has an abundance of these kinds of companies, and they have begun moving towards social business. The successful ones are the ones that don’t just “play” at being social businesses, but integrate social concepts into critical business processes, whether they pertain to innovation, product development, customer service or employee training.

Building Employee Support: Practice Makes Perfect

For the reasons mentioned above, German companies are particularly reliant on well qualified employees and their ability to innovate. They need to find and recruit exactly this kind of personnel (sometimes from outside Germany), train them, support their professional development, encourage them to exchange ideas creatively and openly, and “capture” and document their knowledge.

Learning Opportunities

That’s why Germany needs social business concepts, and not just for the younger Facebook generation. Older employees in particular are often important sources of knowledge and expertise and will become increasingly important in Germany as its population ages, so winning them over to social work processes deserves special attention.

Bringing all generations of employees on board requires time, patience and training, as well as transparency, management support and a culture of trust within the company, the last of which may have suffered somewhat in these times of budget cuts and the layoffs that often go along with them.

It also requires trade unions and employee representative organizations to deal constructively with social business issues rather than focusing on email restrictions and remaining entrenched in the battles of yesteryear.

As we say in Germany, “no master ever fell from the sky” -- i.e., practice makes perfect. We all had to learn how to drive once, too -- that is, we had to learn the traffic rules, but mainly we had to get out there and gain practical experience on the road. Social business is no different.

We only learn with help from a driving instructor -- or, in this case, a social business coach -- and from our own experience. Employees have to learn how to operate the “social business vehicle” and familiarize themselves with the rules of the road, the social business guidelines.

And management and employee representative organizations have to let employees loose on the social business streets, and they shouldn't put up too many stop signs, traffic lights and speed cameras. There’s another German saying that goes ”trust is good, but control is better.” But if you want to promote innovation and be a market leader, it’s the other way around: Control is fine, but trust is better.

Social business currently seems to be taking root in Germany, and if my observations are anything to go by, more so than in other European countries. The companies that have been successful in this regard are those that have gone beyond simply selecting the right vehicle -- i.e., the right social software -- that is, those that have given their employees the right training and the “driving practice” they need and have implemented social concepts in relevant business processes. That appears to be the key to winning out against global competition.

I've put together a list of ten social business assumptions -- not just for Germany -- in 2013. As always, any feedback, constructive criticism and suggestions for possible additions you may have are very welcome. My top ten social business assumptions for 2013:

  1. Germany -- and indeed any country that wants to hold its own against global competition -- must become a social business. This applies not only to large corporations, but is particularly relevant for medium-sized enterprises. (And, just as an aside, it would be of benefit in the spheres of government and public administration, too.)
  2. Employees belong at the heart of any social business. They play a decisive role in productivity and innovation.
  3. Company management needs to be willing and able to create an open culture of trust and lead the way when it comes to social business. Social business can’t work within the hierarchical and control-based structures of yesteryear.
  4. This same goes for trade unions and employee councils: the aim should be creating a constructive working environment and recognizing opportunities for employees. That is what trade unions should focus on. Social concerns and employees’ needs should be given consideration in organizing crowd sourcing, home offices and working on the move should not be prohibited, but social concerns and employees’ needs should be given consideration in organizing them.
  5. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect. Employees must be allowed to get their social business “driver’s license,” that is, learn the rules of the road and gain practical experience under the guidance of a “driving instructor.”
  6. Social business needs time and patience. Companies need to gently coax employees out of their email mentality, allay their security concerns, break down hierarchical thinking and patiently convince them of the advantages of openly sharing and discussing information.
  7. Companies should support employees who have an affinity for social media and train them to be social business coaches who can guide their coworkers.
  8. Businesses should choose an up-to-date high-performance social business platform whose functions can be integrated into day-to-day working life and used constructively in the office and, even more importantly, on a range of mobile end devices.
  9. At least as important as the social business platform itself is the company providing it, which should have extensive experience in introducing social software and offer guidance throughout the implementation process. Ideally, the provider be a social business that lives and breathes what it sells.
  10. Putting social business into practice within a company is merely the first step. In the next phase, social business can and should be introduced into client and supplier relationships as well.